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MS to unveil wireless e-book design

Ah, but will it ever ship?

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Microsoft will announce plans for a tablet computer this week at the Seybold conference, according to an article in today's New York Times. As always, the company says it has no plans to build the device itself, but that it intends to work with hardware companies to build and sell it. Ominously, there seems to be no timescale attached, but Microsoft is also scheduled to announce delivery plans for ClearType today, and the two are likely to be linked. ClearType, which at least Microsoft thinks is a revolutionary technology that will make screens easier to read, and therefore make electronic books more feasible, will go into beta under the name Microsoft Reader in the next few months, and is intended to ship in Q1 2000. Microsoft's plans for tablet computers are closely linked to its corporate view that electronic books will be mega (again, this may be something few people outside Microsoft believe) in the near future, so you'd expect it to intend that the device should be rolling shortly after that. But that kind of depends on how ambitious its plans are. A simple writing pad sized box with wireless communications, no keyboard and touchscreen control is easily do-able today, but if Microsoft decides to push for handwriting and/or voice recognition as well the tablet will be about as real as the content of onee of Bill Gates' visions of the future videos. Microsoft has Butler Lampson and Chuck Thacker, both ex-Xerox PARC, working on the project, and that could be ominous too, given PARC's record of failure when it came to turning visions commercial. But on the other hand Microsoft is clearly worried about the success of 3Com's Palm Pilot, so could well be inclined to keep it simple in order to get a design out of the door. There is however one other difficulty. Microsoft will in effect be putting together a reference design for a go-anywhere, lightweight wireless device, and as regular readers may have noticed, both NatSemi and Intel have been working in similar areas over the past year. That could make life particularly confusing for PC companies wondering whether they should go for, say, the Microsoft design or the Intel one. Unless of course the two wind up pooling resources, as so frequently happens. ®

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